It is with sadness that we write to inform you of the passing on August 29, 2020 of Michael Silverman, Professor Emeritus, a former Chair and one of the founders of Brown's Department of Modern Culture and Media.
Michael Silverman received his BA with Honors in English and French from the University of British Columbia; his MA from the University of Toronto; and his PhD from the University of Washington with a dissertation on "Formal Solutions: Structure in Shakespearean Romance." After teaching at the University of California-Santa Barbara for five years, he came to Brown in 1973 to join the English Department, where he taught courses on 17th Century poetry. However, Professor Silverman's true passion lay in other texts: specifically, cinematic ones; indeed, he helped to initiate film as a field of study at Brown and beyond. Professor Silverman was also very interested in the discussions and debates emerging at the time from structuralist and poststructuralist theory, semiotics and psychoanalysis, and critical and cultural theory as these intersected with screen studies. Given those interests, he worked with Professor Robert Scholes to form Brown's Program in Semiotic Studies, which was focused on the production of meaning in texts ranging from the literary to the visual and mass-mediated. Through its Arts-Semiotics concentration (co-founded with Roger Mayer), that program emphasized the relation between scholarly and creative practice, and Professor Silverman's own practice, as a scholar and teacher, was key to making that innovative connection, just as there were also connections that he fostered between Semiotics and other departments on campus, such as French, German, and Italian, which led to important collaborations. The most significant collaboration came a few years later: another innovative program at Brown, Literature and Society (co-founded by Professor Roger Henkle and Professor Lewis Perry Curtis) was also deeply interested in the operations and implications of textual formations, and, given shared interests (as well as friendly but vigorous debates), these two programs merged in 1987 to form the Department of Modern Culture and Media, with Professor Silverman as a central member of this new endeavor. Through the seminal work of these and other founding members of the department, Modern Culture and Media came to be known nationally and internationally, and it was not simply the department that was influential: Professor Silverman himself was an inspiration to students working in a wide range of areas, from formal and aesthetic critique to experimental filmmaking, from psychoanalysis to cultural theory, from canonical texts to new interventions in media and art.
Professor Silverman was truly a cinephile: he saw—and had fascinating thoughts—on almost everything. He wrote about the film work of such figures as Michelangelo Antonioni, Karen Arthur, Frank Capra, Marcel Carné, Liliana Cavani, Claude Chabrol, David Cronenberg, Samuel Fuller, Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Terence Malick, Marcel Ophuls, Nagisa Ōshima, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mark Rappaport, Alain Resnais, Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles, and more, ranging over North American, European, and Asian cinema. He was equally as interested in creative film production, working closely with many students who went on to brilliant film careers, as well as with many students who went on to become brilliant film scholars or who followed other creative or intellectual pursuits. One of his first students, Jeremy Butler, who went on to research and teach film, television, and new media as a professor at the University of Alabama, stated of Professor Silverman: "By providing lenses through which to view the cinema that were insightful without being pretentious, he inspired me to devote both my professional and my personal lives to understanding film and television. And, moreover, the brilliance of his lectures and seminars further inspired me to emulate him and attempt to teach others about the media. He changed the course of my life." Likewise, Meredith TenHoor, Professor of Architecture at the Pratt Institute, wrote “My three years of seminars with Michael Silverman—first as his student and then as his TA—were so full of rigor, invention and joy that I was ruined for all other forms of work.” Film and television producer Jessica Levin, noting her conversations with Professor Silverman shortly before he passed away, said, "When I spoke with Michael this past spring, he reflected that an engagement with really smart people—his students—was a motivation for his work. That engagement with us and his energy for our ideas fueled our creative and critical fires, at Brown and in the years far beyond it." Renowned filmmaker Todd Haynes similarly stated that "Michael’s voice will always stir within me, as if in that gently probing grain you could hear the sound of critical discovery, the radical and the tender wrapped up in the rarest generosity. Few people in my life have inspired me more than this dear friend and mentor.” Summing up his influence, Ona Nierenberg, who became a psychoanalyst, wrote, "Mine was one of many lives transformed by Michael’s brilliance, by his teaching that was animated by passion and wit.”
As this indicates, Professor Silverman's importance and influence, at Brown and beyond, will long be felt. He is survived by his partner of 30 years, E.J. Anderson. More information and tributes to Michael Silverman can be found on the MCM website. If you would like to add to the tribute page, please contact [email protected].
Contributions in Michael Silverman's memory can be sent to Gaining Ground.